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The Joy of ‘Revenge’: Why ABC’s Prime Time Soap Needn’t Be a Guilty Pleasure

The Joy of 'Revenge': Why ABC's Prime Time Soap Needn't Be a Guilty Pleasure

Summer is over, at least in the Hamptons of “Revenge,” which winterized its summer cottages and packed up for the end of its first season last night in a flurry of confrontations, last-minute betrayals and possible deaths. It was a immensely satisfying 22-episode run for the new series, which was created by Mike Kelley and executive produced and sometimes directed by filmmaker Phillip Noyce, a modern day, female-centric reimagining of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

To call “Revenge” a guilty pleasure is to imply there’s something to be embarrassed about — the show’s overcooked, but never anything less than solid, effortlessly establishing itself as prime trash TV with glancing moments of larger resonance. It’s not “The Sopranos,” but in its twisty tale of a young woman infiltrating the historic beachside enclave of New York’s most wealthy and powerful with aims to bring down those who’ve never had to face consequences, “Revenge” does seem curiously of the moment, with a core of class rage under all the hidden cameras, off-their-meds psychopaths, courtroom shenanigans and other prime-time soap operatics.

Part of what has made “Revenge” work so well is that its main character has abandoned all motivation other than to burn the place down — Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp), née Amanda Clarke, has been branded the daughter of a terrorist and tumbled through foster homes and juvie, and has devoted the last decade of her life to preparing to destroy the “American royalty” that is the Grayson family, responsible for framing her father David (James Tupper) as a terrorist and him in jail, where he died.

She’s ready to do anything, including romance and prepare to marry Daniel, (Josh Bowman) the son of the couple who got her father killed. Her only ties to her humanity are her childhood friend Jack (Nick Wechsler), who doesn’t know her true identity, and the dog, Sammy, she left in his care (the most emotion Emily shows in the series is when her former pet finds his way back to the house in which they both once lived to die).

Emily’s problem is never one of hesistation or softness — she’s always on the verge of being too cold, too ruthless, her ludicrous bisexual billionaire bestie Nolan (Gabriel Mann) serving as her Jiminy Cricket and trying, not always successfully, to guide her away from the edge. Emily owes not a little to Quentin Tarantino’s Beatrix Kiddo — instead of a list of names, she had a photos on which she crosses out faces of targets who’ve been dealt with. Her methods may not be quite as murdery (though she does also have a Japanese revenge consultant, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, in what has to be the show’s silliest development), but she also lacks the Bride’s potential post-revenge life, with little to cling to outside of her plan other than memories of the past and the lingering sense of connection she has to Jack.

The show’s signature shot involves two people embracing, while the camera peers in at the face of one of the parties — usually Emily — as his or her face, unseen by the other, hardens in display of unfriendly emotion. We’re not here to make friends, we’re here for revenge! Emily’s ability to shunt her emotions aside and her willingness to put the innocent in harm’s way mark her as an anti-heroine, but as the show progresses and its vision of the one percent (a term that’s dropped more than once) comes into focus, her ruthlessness seems necessary if also nihilistic.

In “Revenge,” those in power will invariably act first to protect their position, rationalizing away their behavior afterward as justified or in service to their family. Emily’s primary opponent, Grayson queen bee Victoria (Madeleine Stowe), instinctively acts to smack down those around her even when they’re her friends — some of the show’s best scenes have been between her and her eventual ex-husband Conrad (Henry Czerny). The pair will act together when anything threatens their conspiracy, but as soon as that danger clears they claw at each other via the messy divorce proceedings that take up much of the second half of the series, toward the end each chasing away the other’s new lover just for the pain it will cause.

The Grayson parents are monsters, but it’s in their children that the show has made its main point about wealth and power. Dumb but well-meaning Daniel seemed poised to take a different path, but when offered access to his parents’ dark secrets and a place in his father’s business empire, he immediately sided with them and stepped into the position prepared for him. Similarly, the troubled Charlotte (Christa B. Allen) had a sweet romance with local boy Declan (Connor Paolo), but when it ended spiraled into pill addiction and pettiness, using her resources to target the new girl in school he befriended and trying to get him kicked out by pulling his tuition.

It’s easy to talk about what’s right, but when no one will hold you to it, why wouldn’t you take the easy route or abuse the access you have? As a character, Emily may be a goofy vengeance robot, but everyone she’s targeting is able to squirm away from any repercussions in ways that aren’t always outlandish. Being blackmailed by your son’s mentally ill college stalker may be the heightened stuff of melodrama, but many of the privileges afforded those on screen, from their connections to the way they’re able to buy themselves out of legal trouble, are totally believable.

“What are you coveting, sweetie, the Dolce or what’s underneath it?” someone cooed to the show’s protagonist after catching her staring at Victoria at a party in the highlight of the first season of “Revenge,” the flashback-to-2002 episode “Legacy.” Emily’s fixation isn’t lustful, it’s all about acrimony, about wanting to destroy the seemingly unassailable. And even if “Revenge” unravels in its second season, which promises to explore the secret group that plotted to bring down the plane that set the show’s tragedy in motion, it did capture in its entertaining theatrics a genuine sense of frustration that those in power, miserable as they may be, will always be first to shore up their position and further barricade themselves away in their oceanview mansions, away from the rest of the world.

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